In this last chapter of our short story I will venture to run rapidly over a few months so as to explain how the affairs of Bowick arranged themselves up to the end of the current year. I cannot pretend that the reader shall know, as he ought to be made to know, the future fate and fortunes of our personages. They must be left still struggling. But then is not such always in truth the case, even when the happy marriage has been celebrated? — even when, in the course of two rapid years, two normal children make their appearance to gladden the hearts of their parents?
Mr and Mrs Peacocke fell into their accustomed duties in the diminished school, apparently without difficulty. As the Doctor had not sent those ill-judged letters he of course received no replies, and was neither troubled by further criticism nor consoled by praise as to his conduct. Indeed, it almost seemed to him as though the thing, now that it was done, excited less observation than it deserved. He heard no more of the metropolitan press, and was surprised to find that the “Broughton Gazette” inserted only a very short paragraph, in which it stated that “they had been given to understand that Mr and Mrs Peacocke had resumed their usual duties at the Bowick School, after the performance of an interesting ceremony in London, at which Dr Wortle and Mr Puddicombe had assisted”. The press, as far as the Doctor was aware, said nothing more on the subject. And if remarks injurious to his conduct were made by the Stantiloups and the Momsons, they did not reach his ears. Very soon after the return of the Peacockes there was a grand dinner-party at the palace, to which the Doctor and his wife were invited. It was not a clerical dinner-party, and so the honour was the greater. The aristocracy of the neighbourhood were there, including Lady Anne Clifford, who was devoted, with almost repentant affection, to her old friend. And Lady Margaret Momson was there, the only clergyman’s wife besides his own, who declared to him with unblushing audacity that she had never regretted anything so much in her life as that Augustus should have been taken away from the school. It was evident that there had been an intention at the palace to make what amends the palace could for the injuries it had done.
“Did Lady Anne say anything about the boys?” asked Mrs Wortle, as they were going home.
“She was going to, but I would not let her. I managed to show her that I did not wish it, and she was clever enough to stop.”
“I shouldn’t wonder if she sent them back,” said Mrs Wortle.
“She won’t do that. Indeed, I doubt whether I should take them. But if it should come to pass that she should wish to send them back, you may be sure that others will come. In such a matter she is very good as a weathercock, showing how the wind blows.” In this way the dinner-party at the palace was in a degree comforting and consolatory.
But an incident which of all was most comforting and most consolatory to one of the inhabitants of the parsonage took place two or three days after the dinner-party. On going out of his own hall door one Saturday afternoon, immediately after lunch, whom should the Doctor see driving himself into the yard in a hired gig from Broughton — but young Lord Carstairs. There had been no promise, or absolute compact made, but it certainly had seemed to be understood by all of them that Carstairs was not to show himself at Bowick till at some long distant period, when he should have finished all the trouble of his education. It was understood even that he was not to be at Carstairs during Mary’s visit — so imperative was it that the young people should not meet. And now here he was getting out of a gig in the rectory yard! “Holloa! Carstairs, is that you?
“Yes, Dr Wortle — here I am.”
“We hardly expected to see you, my boy.”
“No — I suppose not. But when I heard that Mr Peacocke had come back, and all about his marriage, you know, I could not but come over to see him. He and I have always been such great friends.”
“Oh — to see Mr Peacocke?”
“I thought he’d think it unkind if I didn’t look him up. He has made it all right; hasn’t he?”
“Yes — he has made it all right, I think. A finer fellow never lived. But he’ll tell you all about it. He travelled with a pistol in his pocket, and seemed to want it too. I suppose you must come in and see the ladies after we have been to Peacocke?”
“I suppose I can just see them,” said the young lord, as though moved by equal anxiety as to the mother and as to the daughter.
“I’ll leave word that you are here, and then we’ll go into the school.” So the Doctor found a servant, and sent what message he thought fit into the house.
“Lord Carstairs here?”
“Yes, indeed, Miss! He’s with your papa, going across to the school. He told me to take word in to Missus that he supposes his lordship will stay to dinner.” The maid who carried the tidings, and who had received no commission to convey them to Miss Mary, was, no doubt, too much interested in an affair of love, not to take them first to the one that would be most concerned with them.
That very morning Mary had been bemoaning herself as to her hard condition. Of what use was it to her to have a lover, if she was never to see him, never to hear from him — only to be told about him — that she was not to think of him more than she could help? She was already beginning to think that a long engagement carried on after this fashion would have more of suffering in it than she had anticipated. It seemed to her that while she was, and always would be, thinking of him, he never, never would continue to think of her. If it could be only a word once a month it would be something — just one or two written words under an envelope — even that would have sufficed to keep her hope alive! But never to see him — never to hear from him! Her mother had told her that very morning that there was to be no meeting — probably for three years, till he should have done with Oxford. And here he was in the house — and her papa had sent in word to say that he was to eat his dinner there! It so astonished her that she felt that she would be afraid to meet him. Before she had had a minute to think of it all, her mother was with her. “Carstairs, love, is here!”
“Oh mamma, what has brought him?”
“He has gone into the school with your papa to see Mr Peacocke. He always was very fond of Mr Peacocke.” For a moment something of a feeling of jealousy crossed her heart — but only for a moment. He would not surely have come to Bowick if he had begun to be indifferent to her already! “Papa says that he will probably stay to dinner.”
“Then I am to see him?”
“Yes — of course you must see him.”
“I didn’t know, mamma.”
“Don’t you wish to see him?”
“Oh yes, mamma. If he were to come and go, and we were not to meet at all, I should think it was all over then. Only — I don’t know what to say to him.”
“You must take that as it comes, my dear.”
Two hours afterwards they were walking, the two of them alone together, out in the Bowick woods. When once the law — which had been rather understood than spoken — had been infringed and set at naught, there was no longer any use in endeavouring to maintain a semblance of its restriction. The two young people had met in the presence both of the father and mother, and the lover had had her in his arms before either of them could interfere. There had been a little scream from Mary, but it may probably be said of her that she was at the moment the happiest young lady in the diocese.
“Does your father know you are here?” said the Doctor, as he led the young lord back from the school into the house.
“He knows I’m coming, for I wrote and told my mother. I always tell everything; but it’s sometimes best to make up your mind before you get an answer.” Then the Doctor made up his mind that Lord Carstairs would have his own way in anything that he wished to accomplish.
“Won’t the Earl be angry?” Mrs Wortle asked.
“No — not angry. He knows the world too well not to be quite sure that something of the kind would happen. And he is too fond of his son not to think well of anything that he does. It wasn’t to be supposed that they should never meet. After all that has passed I am bound to make him welcome if he chooses to come here, and as Mary’s lover to give him the best welcome that I can. He won’t stay, I suppose, because he has got no clothes.”
“But he has — John brought in a portmanteau and a dressing-bag out of the gig.” So that was settled.
In the meantime Lord Carstairs had taken Mary out for a walk into the wood, and she, as she walked beside him, hardly knew whether she was going on her head or her heels. This, indeed, it was to have a lover. In the morning she was thinking that when three years were past he would hardly care to see her ever again. And now they were together among the falling leaves, and sitting about under the branches as though there was nothing in the world to separate them. Up to that day there had never been a word between them but such as is common to mere acquaintances, and now he was calling her every instant by her Christian name, and telling her all his secrets.
“We have such jolly woods at Carstairs,” he said; but we shan’t be able to sit down when we’re there, because it will be winter. We shall be hunting, and you must come out and see us.”
“But you won’t be there when I am,” she said, timidly.
“Won’t I? That’s all you know about it. I can manage better than that.”
“You’ll be at Oxford.”
“You must stay over Christmas, Mary; that’s what you must do. You musn’t think of going till January.”
“But Lady Bracy won’t want me.”
“Yes, she will. We must make her want you. At any rate they’ll understand this; if you don’t stay for me, I shall come home even if it’s in the middle of term. I’ll arrange that. You don’t suppose I’m not going to be there when you make your first visit to the old place.”
All this was being in Paradise. She felt when she walked home with him, and when she was alone afterwards in her own room, that, in truth, she had only liked him before. Now she loved him. Now she was beginning to know him, and to feel that she would really — really die of a broken heart if anything were to rob her of him. But she could let him go now, without a feeling of discomfort, if she thought that she was to see him again when she was at Carstairs.
But this was not the last walk in the woods, even on this occasion. He remained two days at Bowick, so necessary was it for him to renew his intimacy with Mr Peacocke. He explained that he had got two days’ leave from the tutor of his College, and that two days, in college parlance, always meant three. He would be back on the third day, in time for “gates”; and that was all which the strictest college discipline would require of him. It need hardly be said of him that the most of his time he spent with Mary; but he did manage to devote an hour or two to his old friend, the school assistant.
Mr Peacocke told his whole story, and Carstairs, whose morals were perhaps not quite so strict as those of Mr Puddicombe, gave him all his sympathy. “To think that a man can be such a brute as that”, he said, when he heard that Ferdinand Lefroy had shown himself to his wife at St Louis — “only on a spree.”
“There is no knowing to what depth utter ruin may reduce a man who has been born to better things. He falls into idleness, and then comforts himself with drink. So it seems to have been with him.”
“And that other fellow — do you think he meant to shoot you?”
“Never. But he meant to frighten me. And when he brought out his knife in the bedroom at Leavenworth he did. My pistol was not loaded.”
“Because little as I wish to be murdered, I should prefer that to murdering anyone else. But he didn’t mean it. His only object was to get as much out of me as he could. As for me, I couldn’t give him more because I hadn’t got it.” After that they made a league of friendship, and Mr Peacocke promised that he would, on some distant occasion, take his wife with him on a visit to Carstairs.
It was about a month after this that Mary was packed up and sent on her journey to Carstairs. When that took place, the Doctor was in supreme good humour. There had come a letter from the father of the two Mowbrays, saying that he had again changed his mind. He had, he said, heard a story told two ways. He trusted Dr Wortle would understand him and forgive him, when he declared that he had believed both the stories. If after this the Doctor chose to refuse to take his boys back again, he would have, he acknowledged, no ground for offence. But if the Doctor would take them, he would entrust them to the Doctor’s care with the greatest satisfaction in the world — as he had done before.
For a while the Doctor had hesitated; but here, perhaps for the first time in her life, his wife was allowed to persuade him. “They are such leading people,” she said.
“Who cares for that? I have never gone in for that.” This, however, was hardly true. “When I have been sure that a man is a gentleman, I have taken his son without inquiring much farther. It was mean of him to withdraw after I had acceded to his request.”
“But he withdraws his withdrawal in such a flattering way!” Then the Doctor assented, and the two boys were allowed to come. Lady Anne Clifford hearing this, learning that the Doctor was so far willing to relent, became very piteous and implored forgiveness. The noble relatives were all willing now. It had not been her fault. As far as she was concerned herself she had always been anxious that her boys should remain at Bowick. And so the two Cliffords came back to their old beds in the old room.
Mary, when she first arrived at Carstairs, hardly knew how to carry herself. Lady Bracy was very cordial and the Earl friendly, but for the first two days nothing was said about Carstairs. There was no open acknowledgment of her position. But then she had expected none; and though her tongue was burning to talk, of course she did not say a word. But before a week was over Lady Bracy had begun, and by the end of the fortnight Lord Bracy had given her a beautiful brooch. “That means,” said Lady Bracy in the confidence of her own little sitting-room upstairs, “that he looks upon you as his daughter.”
“Yes, my dear, yes.” Then they fell to kissing each other, and did nothing but talk about Carstairs and all his perfections, and his unalterable love, and how these three years could be made to wear themselves away, till the conversation — simmering over as such conversation is wont to do — gave the whole household to understand that Miss Wortle was staying there as Lord Carstairs’s future bride.
Of course she stayed over the Christmas, or went back to Bowick for a week, and then returned to Carstairs, so that she might tell her mother everything, and hear of the six new boys who were to come after the holidays. “Papa couldn’t take both the Buncombes,” said Mrs Wortle in her triumph, “and one must remain till midsummer. Sir George did say that it must be two or none, but he had to give way. I wanted papa to have another bed in the east room, but he wouldn’t hear of it.”
Mary went back for the Christmas and Carstairs came; and the house was full, and everybody knew of the engagement. She walked with him, and rode with him, and danced with him, and talked secrets with him — as though there were no Oxford, no degree before him. No doubt it was very imprudent, but the Earl and the Countess knew all about it. What might be, or would be, or was the end of such folly, it is not my purpose here to tell. I fear that there was trouble before them. It may, however, be possible that the degree should be given up on the score of love, and Lord Carstairs should marry his bride — at any rate when he came of age.
As to the school, it certainly suffered nothing by the Doctor’s generosity, and when last I heard of Mr Peacocke, the Bishop had offered to grant him a licence for the curacy. Whether he accepted it I have not yet heard, but I am inclined to think that in this matter he will adhere to his old determination.
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Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55